Two years ago, I was hired to ghost-write the memoir of an anti-apartheid activist who, after a lifetime of struggle, had fled South Africa and settled in Australia. I didn’t know much about South Africa at the time, but I thought, how hard could it be? Trickles of information had fed through to me here in Melbourne, bits and pieces of apartheid ephemera: Long walk to freedom, Cry Freedom; Graceland. I went to work. I researched, read everything I could get my hands on, and conducted lengthy interviews with the client. Toiling together, we produced a manuscript. Then, as I was taught when I trained as a journalist, I went looking for a local angle.
And I found it. Looking into the Boer war, the British colonial conflict to which 22,000 Australian troops were sent, of which 1000 never returned, I found something. Among the troops who never came back were fifty Australian Native Police Officers, so-called ‘black trackers’ recruited at the request of Lord Kitchener. Members of an elite force of Indigenous Soldiers and veterans of the British war against the first people of Northern Queensland, they were commissioned by the British to break the Boer resistance. They, alongside Australian colonial forces, helped win the bitterly entrenched guerrilla war for the British Empire.
Following the end of the war, as Australian troops were repatriated, these trackers were refused re-entry into Australia on the grounds of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. This law is infamous today for having been the backbone of the White Australia Policy; it outlawed the entry of coloured people into the country. As the Native Police Officers were black, they were ineligible to return home.
After this, they seem to simply disappear. Records of what happened to them were either never made or have been destroyed. The last official mention of them can be found in a repatriation memo that refers to the ‘black problem’. No one knows what happened to them. Dr. Dale Kerwin, the academic who uncovered the memo, believes that most of the evidence was deliberately destroyed, as sending black troops into the conflict was in violation of an agreement between Boer and English leaders to make it a white man’s war. (Both sides feared the consequences of arming black South Africans.) The native population of Africa was to be neutral, and then to be awarded to the victors along with the mineral and agricultural wealth of Africa.
My local angle was a terrible one, one of rancid banditry. I dug deeper.
In 1902 the Boers laid down their arms, pledged allegiance to the King of England, and the Union of South Africa was formed. The newly federated nations of Australia and South Africa were now part of the colonial order, and between each other they started to trade: first goods, then ideas. Both had problems with native populations, and began to look to one another for solutions. For the next half century the two countries based new policies on precedents forged by the other. This cycle of policy adaptation, where the two countries practiced one-upmanship of racialist native policy legislation, gradually formed a gridlock of racially inspired legislation that led to apartheid states in both countries. Each new law was a stroke in a eugenicist game of paddocks that boxed out the rights of indigenous people.
The displacement of Africans into Bantustans or native homelands, and the Australia Aboriginal missions; the laws making mixed-race African children wards of the state and the stolen generations of Australia: each new Australian law had it’s corollary across the Indian ocean, and vice versa. The practice of removing mixed-race children from their parents was perhaps the single largest cue that Australia took from Apartheid South Africa. For Australian legislators of the early 20th century, apartheid’s Bantustan system was a sterling example of how a hostile native population, through the destruction of family and tribal bonds, could be subdued.
Whereas South Africa quashed budding black resistance by scattering people to various Bantustans, the appointed Australian Protectors fragmented Aboriginal families by forcibly removing children of mixed race from their parents. Ostensibly to protect them from abuse, these children were intentionally estranged from Aboriginal culture. They were punished if they were caught speaking their native tongue or continuing cultural traditions.
Somewhere in the process of my research, I began to believe that I would stumble across some new document or connect some new dots, and history would need to be rewritten. It didn’t happen that way: I didn’t really ‘dig’ anything up. Apart from Dr. Kerwin’s discovery, the rest of this has long been in the public domain. So why was I so ignorant? As I read, I felt I should have learnt all this, long ago. Politically centre-left and, if not a great student, then at least a frequent one, I’d spent almost a decade studying humanities, and this was all new to me. Throughout my schooling, the only time I can recall ever being taught anything about Aboriginal Australian history was in the third grade, when a kindly hippie visited my primary school, took us out to the oval, and taught us how to throw a boomerang.
My understanding of Aboriginal history was a nebulous gumbo, one that I’d absorbed through osmosis: a vague conglomeration of shades and ideas, of corroboree and Gallipoli; bushrangers and cricketers. I had an obscure understanding of genocide, of missions and massacres, but it felt like long ago to me. This knowledge, this feeling of original sin, this bitter saudade allows Australians in liberal firmaments carte blanche to tell themselves that they aren’t racist. In such a situation, black and white blends into a comforting grey.
If I’d known my history a little better, I might have been a littler gentler on the rest of the world in recent years, and not stood in some lofty tower of false Australian righteousness. I might have known that the soundbites the race-bating Howard Coalition government used during elections again and again were taken verbatim from the apartheid Botha government of South Africa when they cracked down on ‘terrorists who threaten our way of life’. America, with its dark history of slavery and abolition, wouldn’t have seemed so atrocious had I known that in Australia children were being taken from their families as late as the 1970s. Or that in 1966, decades after segregation was abolished in the States, an amendment to the Australian constitution passed during the 1967 referendum that deliberately stripped Aboriginal Australians of their constitutional citizenship.
Now, for those of us on the left, pink in complexion and politics, things are a little better. We can quote Archie Roach and Marcia Langton. We know not to climb Uluru, that women shouldn’t play didgeridoo, and to thank the traditional owners of the land before reading a poem at you. But that’s about as far as it goes. White guilt in Australia, is, to borrow from Paul Keating, all tip, no iceberg.
Australians simply have an abysmal sense of history. And without it, with the wilful elision of the past and its present day consequences, the nation has a gnawing hole in its centre. There is an emptiness in the heart of this country. Terra Nullius remains in perpetuity, in the ignorance of the intelligentsia and in the pale, revisionist, self-congratulatory history.
Martin Luther King once said that we are not makers of history, we are made by history. With our whitewashed, home-brand understanding of history, without the understanding of present and future that comes from genuine study of the past, we aren’t made of anything really. Spiritually at least, Australia could be thought of as empty. A rotten, hollow carapace, lit from within by a warm candle glow of self-satisfaction, smiling out to the rest of the world, who can see us as we really are: a parody of a nation, an empty shell with a rictus grin, a jack-o-lantern.